Disrupting Unhelpful Social Narratives About Gun Violence
Gun violence can affect families through random violence, domestic violence, during the commission of a crime, accidents, interactions with law enforcement, and death by suicide. Just as gun violence infiltrates a family via various avenues, prevention and processing in the aftermath are also varied. In my work with youth and families involving gun violence, whether as victims or perpetrators, I have realized that there are different motivations when pulling a trigger and different strategies for processing the violence.
In my opinion and experience, one approach to prevention will not be successful, just as the U.S. “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” initiatives have not yielded desired results. These initiatives seemingly ignored the contributing factors of drug abuse and crime, instead preferring to incarcerate rather than address the social ills and Unhelpful Social Narratives (USNs) (Peake, 2018) that contributed to the epidemics of drugs, crime, and gun violence.
Gun violence has become a mainstream news topic as school and other mass shootings are seemingly increasing. However, gun violence is not new and is very much part of the colonization and founding of the United States. The signing of the Declaration of Independence marked the beginning of the Indian Wars with the implicit goal of ethnic cleansing, which the Second Amendment later supported. As Dunbar-Ortiz (2018) writes, “Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the destruction and control of Native peoples, communities, and nations.”
Gun violence is foundational to the history of this country and continues to be pervasive today. In my work, I strive to disrupt unhelpful social narratives that continue to perpetuate fallacies that somehow shape our conversations, beliefs, and strategies to solving problems. There are several USNs to disrupt about gun violence.
I strive to disrupt unhelpful social narratives (USNs) that continue to perpetuate fallacies that somehow shape our conversations, beliefs, and strategies to solving problems. There are several USNs to disrupt about gun violence.
School shootings are not new and date back to the mid-1800s, the first death noted when a law professor at the University of Virginia was shot dead by a student. Since this first recorded school shooting, numerous others occurred throughout the 19th century to present day. Until recent school shootings or rampage shootings committed by a young person occurred, one USN about this type of gun violence depicted gangbanging students of color shooting one another in inner-city schools and neighborhoods, commonly referred to as street shooters. Although gun violence occurs in inner cities by shooters of various race, depicting this population as the only offenders of gun violence provided a false sense of safety and security for rural and suburban middle- and upper-class families. The USNs about who had access to guns and who did not, who by physical appearance could be considered dangerous and who was not, and the notion that gun violence was only an inner-city problem and “not our problem” created opportunities for shooters who did not fit these narratives to walk into schools unnoticed and unchecked.
In the aftermath of a school-shooting tragedy, pundits and those in law enforcement, mental health, and education philosophize and opine about the behaviors and actions leading up to the shootings. In some cases, reports indicate that shooters demonstrated concerning behaviors, had access to guns, and may have had a history of mental illness. What went unnoticed were these observable red flags. I propose that USNs about the shooter’s family status, socioeconomic class, and physical appearance did not align with the narrative of who was capable of shooting up a school; instead, the typical inner-city street shooter is the common image.
Bushman and colleagues (2016) researched characteristics of school rampage shooters and street shooters, finding that rampage shooters were predominantly White males from low-crime areas who used legally purchased guns stored in their homes, with their victims not always known to them. They further stated that inner-city street shooters were predominantly males of color who lived in high-poverty areas and shot at known individuals with guns purchased illegally on the streets (Bushman et al., 2016).
Working with adjudicated youth and their families schooled me in understanding the role that culture, social, and familial values contributed to gun violence for inner-city youth.
Motivations and contributing factors differed significantly for these two types of shooters, but there are some common predictors. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there is little research indicating the relationship between risk factors and youth gun violence, but there is research that indicates specific predictors leading to the higher likelihood of youth gun violence: exposure to violence, substance abuse, emotional distress, patterns of delinquent behavior, and access to firearms.
Working with adjudicated youth and their families schooled me in understanding the role that culture, social, and familial values contributed to gun violence for inner-city youth. Many of these young people informed me of what gun possession meant to them and shared that their victims (or assailants) were typically someone known to them. These personal communications aligned with the research for street shooters and note that these young people lacked resiliency theory protective factors, primarily a relationship with a stable adult. These young people expressed not having a supportive and consistent relationship with an adult who assisted them with capacity-building in the planning, regulating, and monitoring of behavior; developing a sense of self-efficacy and self-control; opportunities for building adaptive strategies and regulation; and exercising faith, hope, and cultural traditions as indicated by the Center of the Developing Child, Harvard University. Upon reviewing literature, rampage shooters also lack these relationships and traits, leading me to conclude that unparented (Peake, 2018) is unparented, regardless of the social context.
The coining of the phrase and concept of unparented resulted in my work with youth and families spanning socioeconomic, racial, religious, and other variables. I noticed that youth who went home to no one concerned about their well-being, whether to an empty mansion or a crack house and everything in-between, resulted in the same feelings of emptiness expressed by the youth. Granted, the appearance of the situations look vastly different; however, the feelings of loneliness and the lack of a connection were the same. The USNs that all poor youth or youth of color are all living in trauma or lack protective factors is as unproductive as the USNs that all wealthy youth and White youth are not experiencing trauma and have protective factors. Relying on either of these USNs can lead to missing the red flags indicated by behavior rather than relying on perception and appearance.
I noticed that youth who went home to no one concerned about their well-being, whether to an empty mansion or a crack house and everything in-between, resulted in the same feelings of emptiness expressed by the youth.
In my work, I made an observation watching adjudicated and at times violent youth become very gentle in their science class. Our new science teacher taught scientific concepts through hands-on lessons, and the most popular was incubating chicken eggs. I witnessed hardcore youth become excited, protective, and nurturing with the eggs and eventually the chicks. I made it a priority to assist with this project so I could continue to observe and try to understand what I was seeing. I realized that these young people had only known and become familiar with the cycle of violence and death, and this was their first experience with understanding the cycle of life and compassion. Because of this experience, I propose violence prevention initiatives include animal care therapy as a useful method of violence prevention and lowering recidivism rates. The coordinators of one program, the Indiana Canine Assistant and Adolescent Network, found that upon participation of training service animals while incarcerated, improvements in the following domains were noted among offenders: (a) patience, (b) parenting skills, (c) helping others, (d) self-esteem, (e) social skills, (f) normalizing effect; (g) calming effect on the environment (Turner, 2007). There are several similar programs across the country, and from my review, these programs exist in institutions but could be adapted as prevention programs.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recommends various national gun prevention programs that are community-driven interventions with a focus on deterrence strategies. Some programs referenced include Operation Ceasefire, Indianapolis Violence Reduction Partnership, Operation Peacekeeper and Cure Violence. Other efforts include hot-spot policing in which departments of public safety target interventions to known areas of high violence.
There are many approaches, thoughts, theories, and opinions about how to best prevent and reduce gun-violence, some rooted in USNs, which then lead to little to no desired results. I recommend that when considering gun-violence prevention programs for youth and families, practitioners first seek to understand their community and individuals at risk of committing the violence and interrogate the USN’s about gun violence in these communities. As with other interventions, knowing the variables, cultures, and traits of families allows Family Life Educators to research strategies, programs, and initiatives that are a best fit.
Marcy L. Peake, M.A., LPC, NCC, CFLE, is the Director of Diversity and Community Outreach Initiatives in the Western Michigan University College of Education and Human Development and a Faculty Specialist I in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. She is the founder of The Center for Cultural Agility (https://thecenterforculturalagility.com/).
Bushman, B. J., Calvert, S. L., Dredze, M., Jablonski, N. G., Morrill, C., Romer, D., . . . Webster, D. W. (2016). Youth violence: What we know and what we need to know. American Psychologist, 71, 17-39.
Center of the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2018). Resilience. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2018). Settler colonialism and the Second Amendment. Monthly Review. Retrieved from https://monthlyreview.org/2018/01/01/settler-colonialism-and-the-second-amendment/
Development Services Group. (2016). Gun violence and youth, literature review. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/gun-violence-and-youth.pdf
Peake, M. (2018). Why OST workers must disrupt unhelpful social narratives. Youth Today. Retrieved from https://youthtoday.org/2018/08/why-ost-workers-must-disrupt-unhelpful-social-narratives/
Turner, W. G. (2007). The experiences of offenders in a prison canine program. Federal Probation Journal, 71(1). Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/71_1_6_0.pdf